L.A. Noire Reader Review
It’s been a while since I’ve been able review a title within two months of its release (thanks Amazon, for endlessly discounting and putting me off pre-order excitement), but perhaps I should have waited anyway - you see LA Noire is one of the hardest games I’ve ever had to think about, let alone commit to paper in the form of a review.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way though - in so many ways the game is a triumph. Forget Heavy Rain’s day-time TV acted, attention-seeking melodrama, LA Noire is at times so human it automatically makes it one of the most affecting games ever created.
To react to - and have your gameplay choices affected by - the human elements of trust or sympathy (and their polar opposites) represented in the faces of your a digital cast is such a staggering breakthrough for gaming you could argue that Team Bondi have created a new genre, even a new platform, were its montion-scan tech to be adopted more widely.
At the very least, LA Noire is the best non-coop coop game of this generation - matching the original Portal for its two-player ‘on the sofa‘ mode - perfect for game-doubting friends and partners.
But the reason it’s so hard to score LA Noire subjectively is that for all its effort and technical black-magic, its all star cast, near-faultless acting and pitch-perfect soundtrack, many parts of its core gameplay are hamstrung by the exact limitations that have kept games in the dark for so long.
No more obvious is this in its trademark interrogations. The now well-known three pronged Truth / Doubt / Lie system plays both thrifty tension creator and lead-weighted handicap.
Spotting the truth is easy. The acting is of such a natural calibre you can judge a character’s honesty as you would in real life.
Spotting a lie is similarly natural, with the odd wild-card thrown in. Actors ham-up a lot of the performances (particularly early on), and most of the time alarm bells ring immediately as their testimonies refute evidence you picked up while dutifully combing the interesting (but mainly templated) crime scenes.
No officer, its the ‘doubt’ option that’ll keep you awake at night and account for most of the blemishes on your end of case report card. The reason ‘doubt’ is so hard to judge is that playing as a human, you have a level of understanding and subtlety that a hundred hours of dialogue and ‘trinary‘ choices just can’t imitate.
A perfect example early on in the game saw me questioning a husband about his murdered, alcoholic wife. I smelled a set-up (years of intuition from watching Midsomer Murders you see) and even though a nosy neighbour said he’d knocked his wife black-and-blue before she left the house, I wanted to prove his innocence.
So when I interrogated him about the heated argument and suggested he beat his wife, he said ‘Things get out of hand sometimes’. His gaze flickered tellingly, but he looked genuinely remorseful.
To be honest, I could have pressed all three options (in itself a massive issue), but I wanted to win this one. I wanted to him to get himself out of jail.
“Right.” I thought. “I’m going to call him a liar, use the neighbours evidence and make him tell me how beating his wife was NOT evidence enough to make him the killer.”
I hit lie. I gave the evidence.But I got it ‘wrong’. I was very VERY frustrated.
“How could he be telling the truth!?” I spluttered to my girlfriend watching patiently from the arm chair. “‘Out of hand’ is a bit of a light description of domestic violence!!”
But then how could I ‘doubt’ him when I had absolute evidence of his beatings in my casebook? Evidence the game made me collect so darn carefully?
There a myriad examples of this in the game - where genuinely trying to play by the rules of the game, you encourage yourself trust the actors with human logic and understanding, only to be slapped in the face by the as-yet indecipherable logic of the silicon chip.
If only it told you where or why you went wrong, you could play by the logic of your console, and not suffer the puzzlingly unfair punishment for wrong answers - a much restricted story arc for each case.
But then, could LA Noire’s personal element really reach the highs we expected? Could it ever?
Much of this is made irrelevant by the pulpy fiction you devour throughout the game. Cases and partners come and go, car chases and punchouts abound, and all the while you’re traversing an impressive and detailed depiction of 1950’s Los Angeles.
It’s hard to miss the irony when defending a rapist from two criminal gangs on an ever crumbling movie-set, when the LA you explore is exactly that - a staged and convincing apparition of a city one that you hardly ever explore properly because of the narrative path.
If anything, it could have been made smaller - more intently focussed, and dare I say it, a little more characterful. The lighting is natural and the storefronts realistically utilitarian, but you can never quite shake the feeling a dash of atmosphere, or a proper black and white film noire look could have made the came that more memorable (nb there is a b/w mode but it adds nothing other than a filter).
Also, unlike recent Rockstar releases, it only deals out-and-out action in tiny crescendos. The clunky ‘RB’ cover system and dot cursor return from Red Dead (as does Marston’s ‘caught-short’ running style...) but for some reason, the dead eye mechanic doesn’t.
There’s a basic hand-to-hand and grapple mechanic, and the driving and running scenes are just about thrilling enough but there’s no doubting their paradigms are found in games elsewhere.
But then as I alluded to at the beginning, it’s hard to really compare LA Noire to anything else. Whether or not you care about gameplay or technical innovation, a classic detective fest, open-world role-playing or even just rewarding the devs who’ve worked on it since the PS2 era, you owe it to yourself to try Bondi’s (probably) last Rockstar title.